UCL Faculty of Life Sciences


Meet the Expert: Kate Jones

20 September 2023

Kate Jones is Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity in the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, Department of Genetics, Evolution & Environment and the Director of the People and Nature Lab at UCL East.

Picture of Professor Kate Jones

You’re known as Bat Woman. Tell us why you love bats and why we should too!

Answer: Yep, bats are amazing – they are expert flyers, have incredible echolocation skills to navigate and find food, live all over the world, have astonishing immune systems, live the longest for their size of all mammals, and hardly ever get cancer. Bats are also vital for controlling pests, and are important pollinators and distributors of seeds. Unfortunately, although our ecosystems rely on them, bats have some PR issues! But I find them fascinating, and my research has used bats as a gateway to interesting problems such as understanding processes driving biodiversity loss, developing new AI tools to monitor biodiversity acoustically and predicting how and when animal diseases (zoonoses) jump into humans.

What inspired you to specialise in the area of ecology?

Answer: I was hooked into exploring and investigating the natural world through a combination of Indiana Jones films and David Attenborough documentaries. But I was introduced to my first bat as an undergraduate at University of Leeds and I got to hold a tiny pipistrelle bat in my hand and watch it flutter away from my fingers. There is something about bats that is both mysterious and captivating and that was the moment for me that I knew I wanted to study ecology.

You have done a lot of work on zoonotic diseases. How did you get involved in this in this area, and do you think this will get better or worse in the next decade? How can we mitigate this?

Answer: My path into zoonotic diseases started a fellowship at Columbia University with the EcoHealth Alliance group in New York. I had just finished a project mapping out the distribution of all 5000 or so mammal species and I was interested in seeing if I could predict the places where zoonotic diseases jumped into humans using information where animals and humans interacted most. This led to the first disease spillover hotspot map which has been used all around the world to prioritise surveillance and resources. Since then, I have been investigating this complex system to create better future predictions for many diseases like Ebola, Lassa fever and Japanese Encephalitis. And yes, pandemics like covid-19 (another zoonotic disease) will keep happening and we are likely to see another such pandemic in the next decade especially because of increasing land use and climate change. To stop pandemics, we need much more investment in global surveillance of diseases, global health provision, and new prediction and forecasting tools to help health agencies. But above all, to stop jumps happening in the first place we need stop destroying ecosystems and start restoring them. 

The pandemic saw a lot of misinformation spread about diseases. How do you think nations/governments can improve their communications about these to stop or reduce this misinformation?

Answer: I haven’t got a good answer I am afraid! This is a massive problem and not easy to solve given the complexity of the social media landscape and the rise of conspiracy theories. I think clear and transparent communication from trusted experts is key, and proactive targeting of misinformation.

The brand new People and Nature Lab at UCL East is now in use. It’s housed in a fantastic location and you have been looking at the local wildlife. What have the monitoring devices in the Olympic Park shown so far?

Answer: I love UCL East – it has been a passion project for nearly 10 years from inception to realisation. We wanted to build a place with multi-disciplinary working around big challenges from the outset. I direct the new People and Nature Lab and it is a hub for ecology but applied to real-world problems such as climate change adaptation, understanding the links between biodiversity and human health, food security, and how we can build nature and climate friendly cities. As an exemplar project, we have been developing new smart sensors and deploying them around the Olympic Park to listen to bat calls and identify species with AI algorithms. The data so far has shown a surprising amount of bat activity all year, even when they are supposed to be hibernating all winter! Also they definitely don’t like West Ham matches in the stadium – so we are looking to see whether there is anything that can be done to mitigate the effect of all the fans and flood lighting.

The new programmes at UCL East have a focus on AI data-driven information. Do you think this can help us to speed up our responses to the problems faced by the world today, or is it still a very technology?

Answer: AI is an incredible technology. There is a huge potential for the application of AI to tackle the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. For example, through creating AI algorithms to process vast amounts of new sensor data to track changes in wildlife populations and to measure the success of our restoration efforts. We are seeing this area rapidly develop and one of the People and Nature Lab’s new masters’ programmes is focusing on the intersection of Ecology and AI – training the next generation of interdisciplinary ecologists and computer scientists.

What’s your next big challenge in terms of research?

Answer: Wow, I think I am having enough trouble trying to keep all my existing research threads in my head at the same time and establishing the new lab! Maybe write a book on bats?!

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